What the Devil

Rev. Victoria Weinstein

First Parish in Norwell
October 26, 2003

You know why we sang "May Nothing Evil Cross This Door" as our opening hymn this morning, don't you?

It's because your minister is superstitious.

Or maybe that's not fair. Maybe it's not so much superstitious as respectful of the possibilities that when you invoke a spiritual presence, that presence just may decide to take you up on your invitation and show up. It is an old folk belief with a great deal of wisdom to it, as many old folk beliefs have.

This time of year, with its Halloween holiday that invites us to have some fun with the shadowy parts of our existence, reminds us that our religious questions must not concern themselves only with sweetness and light. If we study goodness we must also study badness.

I learned this lesson as a little girl from repeated viewings of Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," watching carefully when baby princess Aurora's queen-mother and king-father invited all the good fairies to her christening, but failed to invite the big baddie, Malificent. Malificent got very angry, of course, and crashed the party, and cursed the baby. That was a powerful lesson. You must invite the bad fairy in or the bad fairy will find its way in regardless. But when you do, it's smart to have on hand a little spell-casting song to remind the bad fairy to behave itself when it's with you.

So we're going to talk about the Devil today, but we don't need any visits, thank you. Think that's silly? Keep in mind that one of my predecessors in the ministry of this very congregation, the Reverend Deodate Lawson, was a passionate witch-hunter a little north of here before he served here in Norwell (it was South Scituate then, in 1694). You better believe the good reverend was preaching up a storm on Satan on a regular basis, and he believed that Satan was abroad in the land! But that's not why Deodate Lawson was dismissed after only four years. He was dismissed because he used to disappear from the parish for months at a time (pursuing the almighty dollar – or shillings, it would have been back then -- so they think).

It seems the Devil has been with us forever. He's a popular advertising icon, a movie star, a sympathetic literary creation in the hands of authors as various as Baudelaire, Anne Rice, Fyodr Dosteyevsky, Ambrose Bierce, Milton, and Goethe.1 Satan sings! He's appeared on Broadway as Mr. Applegate and in the opera as Mefistofeles. In the famous song by the Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil," he locates himself at the execution of heretics like Michael Servetus2 , or any one of the 500,000 to one million men and women (mostly women) who were tortured, burned alive or hanged as witches in Europe and the new world between 1400 and 1750.

Is the devil real? I'll come clean here and tell you that I've been working pretty closely with the phenomenon of the Devil for a long time now – even professionally – (would you be surprised if I told you I explored the idea of being trained as an exorcist?), and I respect the possibility that something can be eminently real without being actual. To quote this century's preeminent expert on Satan, Jeffrey Burton Russell, "The Devil is a real phenomenon; therefore, the Devil is real." He is "the negative personality at the heart of evil." (Burton Russell, The Prince of Darkness, 264)

Elaine Pagels has written a marvelous study of the development of Satan in the Judeo-Christian world (he's important to Muslims, too, by the way, by the name "Shaytan"). The word "satan" as it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures just means "adversary." So the Old Testament Satan, therefore, was not believed to have powers anywhere equal to God's; that development came much later in history and was probably an influence of the dualistic religion of Zoroastrianism on the Greek world. (See Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan, 1995) Simply put, it took the thousands of years between the events recounted in the Old and New Testaments for the "adversary" of the Hebrews to become The Devil of the later Christian tradition; the tempter of Jesus.

Do you remember that scene, in the gospel of Matthew? Jesus has been fasting in the desert for forty days and the Devil tempts him three times. Hey, why don't you turn these stones to bread, big fella? "No, man shall not live by bread alone." Hey, why don't you jump off this precipice? Angels will catch you. "No, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test." Hey, here's the whole empire. Why don't you worship me and you can have it all? "Why don't you get thee lost?"

What do you picture when you hear this story? Jesus we can imagine. But Satan? Red guy, pointy tail, horns, pitchfork, hooves, right? Not for those hearing this story in the first few centuries of the Common Era. It wasn't until a few centuries into Christianity that Satan became fused with some of the Greek gods, including Hades (the Greek Underworld god of fertility and death) and more to our point, with Pan and Dionysus, the gods of chaos, ecstasy, wine and sexuality. Unbridled sexuality, death and ecstasy were considered problems that early Christians looked to their faith to solve, not to promote, and so they created images for Satan that incorporated visual details everyone would associate with the ancient gods Christ was meant to replace: the horns and hooves of Pan, the leering grin and lustful ways of Pan and Dionysus, the black color of Hades (or the red of scorched earth and blood), and the pitchfork -- or trident -- of Poseidon (a symbol of mastery). And so this vague Biblical figure morphed into Satan the sexy beast, a real lady-killer in more ways than one.

One of Sigmund Freud's great contributions in the early 20th century was to shed light on the long association between the Devil and sexuality, and to help us understand how aspects of ourselves that we repress and relegate to the unconscious can become literally demonized. While the figure of the Devil today is often just a curiosity-piece or entertainment, we should not forget that throughout much of Judeo-Christian history, Satan has been considered the great seducer, and that many innocent men and women have met vile and violent deaths because they were thought to have fallen into his clutches (although many more women did, because they were supposed to be far more susceptible to Satan's seduction, beginning way back with Eve in the garden of Eden).

Is the Devil real anymore?

Yes, for some. Satan is quite real, for example for Lt. General William Boykin, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, who has met with severe criticism recently for telling church groups that the war on terrorism is a Christian struggle against Satan. More than just an idea, or a symbol, Satan is for General Boykin a reality that is personified and incarnated by the Muslims he feels he is fighting in a holy war. I am reminded of the words of Carl Jung, who wrote that "Evil is terribly real for each and every individual. If you regard the principle of evil as a reality you can just as well call it the devil." And as we know, some men and women with a lot of authority in our world do just that. My argument with General Boykin, by the way, is not against his right to have religious beliefs, or even to express them. My argument with him is twofold: that he literally demonize Islam while wearing the uniform of the United States military and therefore speaking with authority as an American leader, and that he so radically misunderstand and misrepresent the pacifistic essence of Christianity.

Reading recently about General Boykin, I thought of Fyodr Dostoevsky's character Ivan, who says in The Brothers Karamazov, "I think that if the Devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness."
I like to look at the web site belief.net now and then, and to take their quizzes. I took one the other day on "Spiritual Types" (According to their results, I am officially a "Spiritual Straddler" with one foot in tradition and the other in the realm of the free spirit). However, in this quiz, I was struck by this question:

Q. Evil is present in the world because:
1. Of human failings; evil has no supernatural component.
2. God or a Higher Power wishes to test people.
3. It is impossible to have free will without evil.
4. Humanity is sinful by nature.

What do you think? How about "all of the above" or "none of the above?" Maybe evil is, as has been taught by other religious traditions like Hinduism, part of the divine plan. Maybe evil just is. I don't know why. I am almost obsessed with trying to understand why.

I understand that cruelty is often a bid for power. If you can create fear and vulnerability in your opponent, you stand to gain from it.

I understand that violence is often a means to an end, and even Nature is violent. I definitely accept that destruction is part of the natural cycle of things, although not wanton destruction for its own sake.

I understand tempting others to ill end for ego purposes. It's not an unusual human behavior.

But sheer evil, with no comprehensible motive or possible gain, I do not understand. I will probably never understand it. Hurting people, animals or things for the sake of hurting them fills me with dread. Sadism is the center of evil, and I do not understand the origins of sadism. The only possible conclusion I can reach is that those who become vessels for evil were born without a conscience, or willfully deny its influence on them. Because I believe with William Ellery Channing that our conscience is a gift from God, it feels like a serious Unitarian concern to consider the possibility that there are human beings – and perhaps part of cosmic creation – that are entirely without conscience. For Channing, to be without conscience would be to be literally "godless."

If we hold that freedom is the most sacred and cherished quality of the human mind, it follows, perhaps, that conscience is absolutely necessary to monitor that freedom and to keep it responsible. Radical evil might be the result of freedom run amok without the moral boundaries set by the conscience. Is the presence of evil nature or creation's way of illustrating the profound imperative to employ the conscience?

As Erich Fromm put it, evil is "life turning against itself." When we observe senseless annihilation with no stated object or point, we know we are in the presence of something evil or very close to it. I think it an important responsibility of religious discernment, however, not to leap to the conclusion that we are in the presence of evil when we could work harder to find rationale – however sick or unjust it may be– for what appears to be pointless, sadistic harm. In other words, while wickedness abounds, true evil is truly rare.

Respecting the insights of psychology, we take responsibility for our own shadow sides rather than projecting them onto any other person or persons. We are all potentially evildoers. But when we are tempted to dance with the Devil in ways significant or small, we must consider that Satan is, for all his terror and all his bluster, a cosmically pathetic creature. Pathetic for this reason, known to all those who have struggled with the decision of whether to try to follow the path of darkness or the path of light: destruction is easy. To commit harm is relatively simple; it is an activity and a path for the most despicable, failed beings. It is creation that is hard, creation that is honorable, magnificent and awesome in ways that the Devil can never touch, and he knows it.

I would like to close with these words from Helen Keller, from her autobiography of 1902:

"It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui."

May nothing evil cross your doors, and may the devil languish of boredom in your hearts and in your homes, and in every home, in every land.
Amen, and amen.


1 For my money, the best devil story on record is "The Devil and Daniel Webster," written by Stephen Vincent Benet. It contains the best closing line of any story -- "But they say that whenever the devil comes near Marshfield, even now, he gives it a wide berth. And he hasn't been seen in the state of New Hampshire from that day to this. I'm not talking about Massachusetts or Vermont."

2 We remembered today in our prayers the Spanish theologian and martyr Michael Servetus, who was burned alive at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland on October 28, 1453. Servetus is the author of "On the Errors of the Trinity" and is therefore claimed as a spiritual ancestor by today's Unitarian Universalists. In a particularly heinous gesture of total annihilation, Servetus' books were burned along with his body, but we are grateful to have access to his writings yet today.